For Henry’s Bar

I’m on an errand to find my grandpa. I’m ten
and finding freedom in a sanctioned outing
on my bike through the streets of Clovis, CA.
I roll past Silver’s house and peek into the backyard
of broke drunks holding paper bags around
a barrel fire. One who just came back
from taking a leak is seasoning some carne
they bought with the tallboys across the street
at Numero Uno market. The door chimes when
I walk in and see Artemio’s white mane. His mustache
stretches from his nostrils to his sideburns
and up into his waxed pomp of hair.
My grandma says I’m not supposed to talk to him,
but he always asks how she’s doing.

I don’t see my grandpa anyplace. Art says
he’s around somewhere. I go to Ruby’s
next door. I’m not allowed, but I look in.
I’m hit with a gust of cigarettes and Bud Light.
Half a dozen heads turn my direction. No dice.
I ride down Pollasky with feet out each way.
I swerve left and right, free, for once. I am this
far from the shouting distance of my grandma.
I take to the alley just for kicks and pop a wheelie
behind the appliance shop. I pull up behind Henry’s,
knowing grandpa’s in there. A few other grandpas too.

I don’t knock. I stay on my bike. I realize
I’m not ready to go home and like most men
in this town, grandpa doesn’t want to be found.
I keep riding. I go North toward what’s left
of the railroad tracks. There’s a grey cloud
moving across the sky and I imagine I’m
chasing it, I’m right behind it. I keep riding
until it’s all oleanders and stacked railroad ties.
I never thought I could go this far. I get off
the seat and stand. I glide next to a forgotten
caboose. I imagine I’m the howling train now.
My tires kick dust as they crunch over the dry dry dirt.

Dear Buffalo, Dear Zeta or To a Few of My Dead or Nearly Dead Tíos

I see my dead father's face in your face.
My furled eyebrow, these puffed cheeks
weep into a pillow of inherited hands.
Tío, I still don't know what to do
with this buffalo body. I crush tea cups
every time I raise them to my pursed lips.
How do I tenderize the meat on my bones?
This morning, I dry heaved a vat of foam
into a toilet in Tampa and found no art in it.
Who tells us we deserve to die?
Tío, you, the one with a brown beret,
who saw the hydrogen bomb blow
from an aircraft carrier at Bikini Island,
the one with Hep C and a quiet wife,
I don't know if you're still alive,
but I pray this world has softened
you with its firm kneading hands,
that you are still able to ride you bike
up Homsy to the liquor store on Cedar
and can still reach the oranges in the yard.
Tío, mi tío, when you wet the bed,
is it still my tia's job to change the sheets?
From the kitchen, I see the twelve foot spear
over the maguey. I see its fresh blooms
and know it is about to die. I wonder
if it is better to disappear into Aztlán
or Mazatlán or Mazapan the way you did
or stay in Prather or Marysville and slowly fade
into a sofa chair and reruns of Bonanza.
Is there honor in being shot and skinned? like Ruben?
Hacked up in a hospital for lymphoma research? 
Poked and drained with the swollen face of a failed liver?
How many more fists will be raised until we can no longer,
or better yet, don't have to? I'm tired of thinking these things.
Come back, Tio, or whatever. My mom saved you a plate.
The street dump came by and I got rid of Grandpa's clothes.
I found your mesh t-shirt here and I've been wearing it.

Related Poems


At daylight, he surrendered to the gutters’
thick cirrhosis, his trajectory

half awake, half anvil from the glass to the killing floor
I was raised in, each thin thread tethered

from the root of a nicotined tooth
to the rusted bars of the slammer.  I couldn't tell you why

Felix the Cat came to mind, totally inebriated,
two Xs, bubbles popping, his gait

a saint carried in a procession—Cherry Pink
& Apple Blossom White, 1955—

except that my grandfather died
with a bottle in his pocket, his Robert Mitchum

chin & pompadour distilled
from a banana republic in fire, a slow, steady

drinker, perfect fulfillment to drown out
his manhood. There's a certain kind of fix

that falters precariously,
a benediction when they allege

one more drunk for the hood. He didn't matter
to the dispenser nor the riffraff crowd.

Nothing about him capsized, except his compound
of cologne & corrosion.  All those rotguts.

All those bums. They didn't matter
to the nation, though they were the nation.

My Papa's Waltz

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

Essay on Reentry

At two a.m., without enough spirits
spilling into my liver to know 
to keep my mouth shut, my youngest
learned of years I spent inside a box: a spell,
a kind of incantation I was under; not whisky,
but History: I robbed a man. This, months
before he would drop bucket after bucket
on opposing players, the entire bedraggled
bunch five & six & he leaping as if
every lay-up erases something. That’s how
I saw it, my screaming-coaching-sweating
presence recompense for the pen. My father
has never seen me play ball is part of this.
My oldest knew, told of my crimes by
a stranger. Tell me we aren’t running
towards failure is what I want to ask my sons,
but it is two in the a.m. The oldest has gone off
to dream in the comfort of his room, the youngest
despite him seeming more lucid than me,
just reflects cartoons back from his eyes.
So when he tells me, Daddy it’s okay, I know
what’s happening is some straggling angel,
lost from his pack finding a way to fulfill his
duty, lending words to this kid who crawls
into my arms, wanting, more than stories
of my prison, the sleep that he fought while
I held court at a bar with men who knew
that when the drinking was done,
the drinking wouldn’t make the stories
we brought home any easier to tell.